Putting drones to work as Mr Delivery

With drones’ reputation as controversial killing machines, it’s not the most obvious fit, but some food-bev outlets and event organisers are intent on proving such warlike techonology has an altogether more civilised use. Is this the future of fast-food deliveries?

The Internet blew up earlier this week when the UK branch of Domino’s Pizza delivered two pies by way of a drone. But don’t expect the unmanned vehicle to replace your delivery man – experts say drones have a future in delivery, but it’s not in the food market, reports

Chris Brandon, a representative of Domino’s, says the “DomiCopter” was dreamt up by the company’s UK wing, and that it’s not coming to the United States anytime soon. The Federal Aviation Administration is still devising guidelines for the commercial use of drones, so using one for pizza delivery would remain illegal until 2015 at the earliest.

“We heard about the promotion, likely, at the same time [everyone else did],” Brandon says. “With that said, we wish them well and hope the program is a success for our stores in the UK.”

While the DomiCopter, “Burrito Bomber,” or “Taco Copter” might not ever replace delivery drivers, drones have a future in cargo delivery. FedEx wants to use drones to carry cargo to its processing centers, and drones are already being used to great effect in Afghanistan, where two K-MAX unmanned helicopters have carried more than 3 million pounds of cargo since December 2011.

“The K-MAX demonstration has been so effective that the Marine Corps didn’t let them come back, they’ve just made them workhorses,” says Missy Cummings, a former fighter pilot turned drone researcher at MIT. “They’ve taken so much cargo off of convoy routes that were littered with IEDs, they’ve saved countless lives.”

With cargo, the military and shipping companies don’t face the same problem that companies like Domino’s might: They are often carrying thousands of pounds of cargo, so large planes and helicopters can simply be altered to fly unmanned. Cummings says that when shipping companies inevitably get regulatory approval to fly drones, they will fly large shipping crates from ports to warehouses, for instance.

“I believe a large majority of commercial cargo will become unmanned in my lifetime,” she says.

Delivering pizza to individual customers presents an entirely different challenge – small drones are almost always battery powered, and can only run for a short time. Until those are drastically improved, it’d be too expensive to deliver food to customers.

“Unless we get a new propulsion system, these aren’t reliable – it’s a publicity stunt. You might be able to deliver a cheese pizza, but you’re not going to be delivering a meat lover’s,” Cummings says. “There’s a basic physics problem for now.”

There’s are also safety issues associated with flying drones as delivery vehicles: Drones still aren’t great at using “sense and avoid” technology to keep from hitting obstacles, including power lines, birds and other drones. Currently, drones are also vulnerable to GPS-spoofing, meaning someone could hack into it and reprogram the drone to fly elsewhere.

“You could imagine as a prank that hackers could trick them into going to a new house to get a free pizza,” Cummings says.

Still, every time one of these food delivery drone videos goes viral, it helps people who may associate drones with targeted killings overseas see them in a more positive light, she says.

“With these media events, they’re capturing the attention of what these things could eventually mean. We could have an unmanned helicopter in the Navy to deliver emergency medical supplies and perform evacuations. They could carry food supplies, medical supplies, help humans who are in dire trouble,” Cummings says. “I think it’s good because we’re on the precipice of a new revolution.”


Other drone delivery stunts

Domino’s DomiCopter is just one of many publicity-seeking stunts using drone technology – even at home in SA. Organisers of the famous Oppikoppi music festival (in Northam, Limpopo, in early August) have promised to sate fans’ thirst with drone-delivered beers.

A video of a trial run of the technology shows an octocopter (an eight-rotored, unmanned flying vehicle) dropping single cans of beer — attached to a parachute — from high above a field.

Beer drones to debut at Oppikoppi: read more

Last year, a San Francisco-based startup flirted with the idea of using a drone to deliver tacos to hungry customers.

And also in the UK, YO! Sushi is developing its “first flying serving tray”, reportedly to be rolled out next year. It has a lightweight carbon fibre frame with four propellors, two fixed cameras and its own Wifi connection, and is controlled using an iPad app. First accounts of it in action show plenty of teething problems.

Yo! Sushi drone delivery – will it take off?: read more